The Incarnation

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

 

Our journey through the Apostles’ Creed brings us now into a multipart study of the life and work of Jesus, which, of course, begins at His birth. The virgin birth, which Lewis called the Grand Miracle, has long been given the rightful attention of theologians. As we will see, without this opening act of God, the gospel is undone. The incarnation of Christ and His virgin birth is not a belief to be negotiated; it is the wonder of all wonders. It is our hope and our redemption.

THE DOCTRINE

Far more can be said about Christ’s birth than what we have time for here; we will, therefore, paint with broad strokes, attempting to cover the basics of this doctrine. In doing so, let us begin with the title given for this event by which we still divide all of human history: the incarnation. Incarnation means the taking on of flesh, of a body. A central text from which we can center this study is John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word was both distinct from God, while also being God (1:1). This Word was the means by which God created all things, such that nothing created was created without Him (which can only mean that He, like God, was not created). This Word is Jesus, as is made clear in verse 17. He has brought life to men, shining light into our darkness. God the Son, the eternal Word, has displayed His glory to the world that He made, such glory that could only radiate from the Son as He comes from the Father. How did He reveal to us His gracious and true glory? He became flesh and dwelt among us. God the Son became human. This is the incarnation of Christ.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the incarnation with two phrases: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. The two are inseparably linked to one another. Without the conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth is impossible. Without the virgin birth, the conception by the Holy Spirit rendered false. We cannot affirm one without the other; we must accept or reject them together.

But why were such things necessary? Let us begin with why a virgin birth was necessary. The virgin birth is not simply a silly myth for describing Jesus’ origin as a great teacher. It is a historical reality that is also a crucial component to the message of the gospel. In fact, the first promise of the gospel also prophesies the virgin birth. In Genesis 3:15, after humanity fell into sin, God pronounced this curse upon the Serpent: “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The curse must have given comfort to Eve. She was deceived and led into sin by the Serpent, but one of her offspring would destroy the Serpent. Through a woman, Adam plunged humanity into sin, but through a woman would also come humanity’s Savior. The incarnation of Jesus only deepens this symmetry by revealing that the Serpent-Crusher was not just born of woman, but He was exclusively born of a woman since she was impregnated by no man.

Many theologians have pointed to the virgin birth, therefore, as the catalyst for Jesus coming into the world as the second Adam (that is, without inheriting sin). Being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, Jesus was born free from the cycle of sin, which, of course, made it possible for Him to live a sinless life. Without the virgin birth, Jesus could not rightly be called the second Adam, and He could not give His life as payment for our sins. The virgin birth, therefore, is necessary for the gospel.

Furthermore, the two statements also point us toward the two natures of Christ. As being conceived by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that Jesus was sent by the Father to earth. He did not begin existing with His conception because He was eternally existing as God the Son. He is, therefore, divine. He is God the Son sent by God the Father.

But He was also born of Mary the virgin. He was born. Think about it. He was born. Nine months of developing in the womb and the whole shebang. He came into the world like we all came into the world: by the body of our mother. Jesus, therefore, is human. While His birth was not the beginning of His existence, it was His incarnation, His becoming flesh, a human.

This stands beside the Trinity as one of the great mysteries of Christianity. Jesus is one person, yet He bears two natures, God and man. He is fully human and fully God. He is not a glorified man who looks kind of divine, as the Arians believe. Neither is He God who only appeared to look like a man, as Docetism teaches. He is not a demigod, who is part God and part man, nor is He sometimes God and sometimes man. The Chalcedonian Creed (or the Definition of Chalcedon) gives us very specific language for affirming this reality:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

APPLICATION

Having now addressed some of the basics for understanding the incarnation, we now will look at how this doctrine applies to us. While the applications for the incarnation are numerous, I will discuss three: 1) by becoming human while retaining His deity, Jesus is able to mediate between God and man, 2) since Jesus became flesh, our bodies are not evil, and 3) by condescending to us, Jesus is the supreme model of humility for us.

Jesus as Mediator

Paul wrote these words to his disciple, Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus is only mediator between us and God. But why do we need a mediator at all?

Adam and Eve needed no mediator. They were free to bathe in the presence of God and to enjoy the world that He had given them to rule. But they rejected their communion with God in a feeble attempt to seize power. Their disobedience opened a chasm between them and their Creator. As a symbol of this separation, they were exiled from Eden, cast away from God’s presence. God gives the judgment, but the damage is self-inflicted. When we sin, we follow the footsteps of our ancestors and keep the path clear for our descendants to tread behind. We reject God, and there remains nothing for us except a gulf between us.

In His mercy, God repeatedly crossed the chasm to reveal Himself to His people. He spoke to them through prophets. He gave His Spirit to their kings. He established priests to pray and sacrifice on their behalf. Yet these were all messages from afar, letters to exiles to remind us that we were not forgotten nor unloved. But the abyss remained uncrossed.

Enter Jesus, who bridged the gulf. As a man, Jesus was able to be truly human, as we were designed to be. He became like us in every respect, except better, as we should have been. He became the second Adam, resisting the pull of sin that the first Adam fell into. When offered the forbidden fruit from Eve, Adam ate. He should have rejected the opportunity to sin. More than that, he should have offered himself to take the judgment of Eve’s rebellion. Instead of correcting and then dying for her, he chose to follow and then blame his wife. Jesus, however, never yielded to sin and died in our place to rescue His Bride.

Yet Jesus’ death would have been insufficient unless He was also God. How can one man’s physical death cover the eternal spiritual death that was the consequence of sin? Only the Infinite Himself could pay our infinite debt. Since God was sinned against, only God could also redeem. As God, the death of Jesus was the death of God. The Holy One died to make us holy, to bridge the chasm and restore our communion with Him.

Without both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, He could not be our mediator. Yet He, the God-man, is. He is the way that has been made across the divide, and there is no other. How could there be? To claim another path to God makes a mockery of the cross. Further, it makes a mockery of God humbling Himself to become a man. Jesus has not left other options open. We must either accept Him or reject Him, but we cannot view Him half-heartedly as one of many roads to God.

“There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.”

The Flesh

Gnosticism was one of the first heresies to rise up against Christianity. Gnostics primarily believed that Jesus had given to some individual a secret knowledge that was hidden from the others. Who this individual was varied between different teachers (Thomas, Judas, Peter, Philip, Mary, etc.), which is why there are so many Gnostic Gospels. Yet most Gnostics shared the idea that this secret knowledge would free them from the physical world and enable them to transcend into the spiritual world. They longed for this because they believed all things physical to be evil and all things spiritual to be good. This view led to two extreme applications. First, some Gnostics would give themselves fully to ascetism, punishing their bodies and denying themselves any earthly pleasure. Second, others would yield entirely to self-indulgence, reasoning that the body could only do evil since it was evil so why try to stop it? Both were drastic attempts to be liberated from our flesh and from the material world. Doesn’t that sound spiritual?

This swaying between extremes is still present today. While Western culture has predominately been hedonistic (as consumerism must be), society almost always fights extremes with extremes; thus, when the American dream leaves us empty, many turn to an ascetic lifestyle. The flashy steam of dopamine that is social media is only fueling this division at an even quicker pace. Social media feeds are inherently hedonistic by design. The blend of having screens as buffers between us and others, endless information novelty, personalized news feeds, and vast social connectivity has created a kind of cognitive candy. We should not be surprised then to find the disillusioned turning to Buddhism and Stoicism (often condensed into the idea of mindfulness), both of which emphasize the primary importance of disciplining our desires and impulses. Islam fits this narrative as well by requiring physical acts of daily prayer and an extended time of fasting each year. They are appealing as ascetic alternatives to the Internet-driven hedonism. They appear to give an answer for what we are to do with our bodies. Feed them relentlessly, or starve them into submission?

Christianity reaches toward both with the truth as revealed in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection blasts a hole in the Gnostic logic of asceticism. God chose to dwell in flesh; therefore, flesh itself cannot be an inherent evil. Jesus comes to redeem our bodies, not destroy them. This will occur through the death of our current bodies, but when Christ comes again, He will resurrect us into new, glorified bodies. Our flesh is not evil, just broken. This means that the life of a Christian must embrace the shades of truth that mark both hedonism and stoicism. We must recognize that God purposely made us with taste buds. He also created chocolate with a different flavor than strawberries, and He made both of those flavors wonderful to combine. As His children, God delights whenever we enjoy the gifts that He has given to us. Yet because our flesh is marred by sin, we constantly valuing God’s gifts more than God as the Giver. We must, therefore, discipline our bodies so we are not consumed by the lure of more.

We see this balance imaged in marriage. Proverbs commends us to delight ourselves physically with our spouse. Properly understood, enjoying the body of one’s spouse is taking pleasure in a gift that they have given exclusively to you. Delight is statement of love, a declaration that their body and their self is satisfying and sufficient for you. Failing to enjoy your spouse can, therefore, rightfully be seen as being unsatisfied with them and their gift, while an obsession with your spouse’s body makes them into an object to used. Both extremes are unloving and ultimately destroy the pleasure itself.

The same can be said of every gift that the Father gives to us. To reject His gifts is a rejection of His gracious love toward us, but to be consumed by His gifts is an idolatrous rejection of Him. May we, therefore, as followers of One who is both God and man be the most satisfied in our enjoyment in our enjoyment of the earthly pleasures that the Father as given us, while also being the most disciplined against letting our desires and longings consume us.

Humility

Finally, the incarnation of Jesus teaches us by example what true humility looks like. Simply stated, Jesus becoming a human is only rivaled by His crucifixion as the greatest act of humility ever committed. Consider the reality of it. God became one of His creations, like a potter choosing to become a jar. The Infinite One became finite. He clothed Himself in the limitations of a body. He willing submitted Himself to hunger, thirst, and pain. He became like us in every respect yet without sin.

Indeed, Jesus was more human than us because of His freedom from sin. As Chesterton argues, sin deadens the senses, leading to a kind of spiritual and emotional paralysis or vegetation. Yet Jesus’ heart was not dulled by sin. His spirit was not deadened to the brokenness around Him. We flinch and distract ourselves from thinking too long or hard about the present reality of atrocities like the child trafficking for organ-harvesting or systemic rape in countries like Myanmar or Libya. Yet Jesus saw every single sin as the act of cosmic treason that it is. We, therefore, cannot even begin to fathom the depth of suffering that even viewing our “small” sins would have caused Him. Yet Jesus chose this life. He willingly descended from heaven to take on flesh and blood and to ultimately have that flesh and blood broken and spilled in our place for our sins.

We must follow His example of humility in at least two ways.

First, since Jesus humbled Himself to become flesh and came not to be served but to serve us, no one is too lowly for us to serve. As our Lord, Jesus modeled how we must live by serving. If we are not greater than Him, how then can we do anything but serve as He served?

But it’s not just the act of serving that Jesus has modeled for us, but also the heart of serving. If we are not guarded, too often serving others can actually build up our pride. We can subtly develop a pharisaical mentality where we believe ourselves to be superior to others precisely because of how selfless we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, this can also limit how we serve others. By believing that we are doing others a favor by serving them, we can view our acts of service with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it mindset, which is not an act of genuinely seeking their good. Therefore, we must be constantly vigilant to conform our hearts to the likeness of Jesus, who served out of selfless and humble love for others.

Second, as we studied last week, a failure to embrace Jesus as Lord is an obstinate declaration of our own supremacy, while bowing to Jesus as Lord is a humble act of submission to Him. Embracing Jesus as our Savior and Lord means dying to self and killing our pride. Yet this act of humility pales in comparison to Jesus’ descension into the flesh. When Jesus commands us to follow Him, He is not making a demand of us that He has not exceeded Himself. He humbled Himself to rescue us; therefore, we must also humble ourselves to receive Him.

Indeed, John Flavel writes a warning in vein of the author of Hebrews about pridefully neglecting “such a great salvation”:

Does he [Jesus] veil his insupportable glory under flesh, that he may treat the more familiarly and yet do you refuse him, and shut your heart against him? Then hear one word, and let thine ears tingle at the sound of it: thy sin is thereby aggravated beyond the sin of devils, who never sinned against a mediator in their own nature; who never despised, or refused, because, indeed, they were never offered terms of mercy, as you are. And I doubt not but the devils themselves who now tempt you to reject, will, to all eternity, upbraid your folly for rejecting this great salvation, which in this excellent way is brought down even to your own doors. (59)

Do you, therefore, embrace the incarnation of Jesus? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine? Do you believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men? Do you believe that He is your mediator? Are you caring for your body in reflection of the good gifts that God has given? Are you following Jesus’ example of humility? Have you humbled yourself to receive salvation from His hand?

We believe in Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, was born of a virgin, becoming a fully human, while still retaining His divinity, so that He could stand as the only mediator between God and us. To embrace these things is to take hold joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Do you believe?

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